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Hitting a plateau
#26: Dealing with stagnancy and pushing beyond acceptable levels
Let me tell you a story about James.
James started as a product designer around three years ago.
He participated in a product design boot camp and learned the ins and outs of product design. He was an avid learner. In addition to his boot camp, he took other online courses, read design books and blogs. His progression was so fast that he gained a general understanding of the fundamentals and became fluent in using design tools within six months. He even landed a full-time job as a product designer. He continued to refine his technical skills and gain practical experience. He grew complacent daily, reaching a level competent enough to deliver an acceptable end-to-end design process.
As he got busy with work, constantly catching up from one deadline to another, he believed he was learning by doing his job. Until one day, he felt he wasn't growing as much as he had initially.
I was pretty similar to James. It was my fifth year as a designer, and I was a design lead.
I thought I was doing okay. But I wasn't.
It felt like my skills were deteriorating.
People often say this as hitting a plateau—a situation where a person's progress or performance levels off, and they find it challenging to make further improvements despite the consistent effort. It means that after initial gains in knowledge, skills, or other aspects, the person reaches a point where their progress stalls, and they seem unable to push past that point to achieve mastery.
When faced with this situation, Anders Ericsson, the psychologist who coined deliberate practice, encourages us NOT TO STOP.
The best way to move beyond it is to CHALLENGE our brains or bodies in a new way.
My English mentor also suggested that I should push my English proficiency towards mastery and fluency differently—not learning English as I did before, relying on books or more academic approaches.
He said to try embedding English into my daily life and find something I love where I can practice English. One of the practices I adopted was watching TV series or movies without subtitles. This allowed me to practice various skills such as listening, comprehension, and understanding different conversational styles. It became an exciting and enjoyable practice for me.
If you feel stuck, try new approaches that rekindle the joy of learning.
Here's what I did in the past trying to improve my design skills:
I practiced my visual language direction skills by attempting to redesign products with a different visual language. For instance, I envisioned Airbnb with a more luxurious and high-end style or reimagined the Uber app to be warmer and more approachable.
I went beyond simply admiring great designs; I analyzed them to understand the reasoning behind specific design decisions. I critiqued their choices, jotted down my ideas, and designed the alternatives.
I experimented with unconventional ideas, not strictly adhering to common design principles. For example, instead of spacing in multiples of 4, I tried designing with multiples of 8 or 5.
You don't have to polish everything you design in your practice session, like Dribbble/Behance-ready. You are not doing it to please others or find new clients, although you can have a two-birds-one-stone situation. But your focus should still be on the learnings.
Last but not least, Anders highlights the crucial aspect of pinpointing precisely what is hindering your progress and recognizing any mistakes you might have made. Once you've identified these obstacles, embark on your improvement journey with tactics rather than aimlessly trying different approaches.
I am working on a book called Deliberate Practice for Designers that aims to give you ideas and tactics for deliberately practicing and enhancing your design skills.
You can read more about hitting a plateau on:
Best of luck challenging yourself, crafting your practices, and surpassing the plateau.
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